People with learning disabilities are not engaging with the democratic process. United Response has decided to do something about this, reports Craig Kenny
Only 16% of people with learning disabilities voted in the last general election compared with 61% of the population at large, according to a survey by the charity United Response. The implications of this are that people with learning disabilities, who make up 2% of the population, are not taking part in democracy. So United Response is running a project – Every Vote Counts – to help people with learning disabilities engage in the democratic process.
“Even people without disabilities find it hard to understand politics,” says Lizzie Emeh, a Londoner with learning disabilities. “They just speak jargon and don’t get to the point. When they make political broadcasts they don’t use clear language that we can understand. They don’t involve us.”
Emeh has voted before and says: “I have never had anyone tell me what to choose. I know my own mind.”
Barriers to inclusion
But many people with learning disabilities have never voted because they face numerous barriers. Crucially, they must decipher politicians’ messages, which are often complex. And even if they do turn out to vote, they sometimes face obstacles in the polling stations. Kari Long, who is leading United Response’s project, says sometimes people with learning disabilities are not allowed to take someone into the polling booth to help them with the ballot paper. “There’s a degree of discretion with returning officers which leads to inconsistent behaviour. In some areas you are allowed to have someone supporting you in the polling booth – because ballot papers can be confusing – but in others it’s not allowed.”
The charity has created a website which explains the frameworks of local and national politics in clear, simple language, accompanied by relevant pictures and an audio option.
But political parties have a long way to go to ensure their messages reach these voters. For instance, the main parties’ websites do not feature options for people with low literacy skills and leaflets and manifestos typically contain complex sentence structures.
Long says: “People with learning disabilities need information broken down into one concept at a time. But politicians like to sound more articulate than that. They like to use sentences with three or four ideas.”
Support workers can interpret this material for their clients, but seldom do. “It’s fair to say that there’s a general ennui and apathy about politics, and that’s why it’s not seen as a priority in services,” says Long.
The other obstacle for support staff is eliminating their own bias. Some might feel uncomfortable interpreting a British National Party leaflet, for instance. “It’s one of the key concerns that people have raised – how do we do this without undue influence? As soon as you get into interpretation there’s going to be bias,” Long says.
So while support workers should try to interpret political information fairly, it is really up to political parties to ensure their messages are getting across. Therefore, the charity’s next move is to write to all MPs and local councillors to raise awareness and collaborate with parliament’s outreach unit to produce a guide.
The project is about more than just voting. United Response wants to help people with learning disabilities become involved in the whole democratic process, rather than just putting an X on a ballot paper. It hopes that a better understanding of the process will give them the confidence to campaign on issues that concern them, such as transport and access to public services, using methods such as town hall lobbying, appearing before select committees and marching.
Many are already involved in campaigns and lobbying, for example in Preston one woman persuaded councillors to install a hoist in a public toilet. And a man in Bognor joined a march against a hospital closure.
The charity’s survey shows that people with learning disabilities are more likely to vote in local elections (20%, compared with 38% of the public), whereas the wider population tends to engage more in general elections. United Response believes this is because people with learning disabilities need to see concrete issues whose effect on their lives they can grasp easily. This occurs more often with local than national issues.
One key aim of the project is to encourage more people with learning disabilities to vote in the local and European elections in June.
“If people with disabilities all vote, we will be heard,” says Emeh. “The more we get our voices heard the more people will respect us.”
How can staff support people with learning disabilities to become more engaged with political issues?
● Seek out political material in large print with colour and lots of relevant photos or illustrations.
● Try to locate material that uses simple words and sentences, giving one concept at a time.
● Find audio versions and video clips of political party messages.
● Try to be unbiased when interpreting political material for clients. Having another person present to check for bias can be useful.
● Check with the returning officer that the client will be allowed a support worker in the polling booth.
● Invite candidates to visit people to explain their ideas in person.
More information at www.everyvotecounts.org.uk
This article is published in the 28 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Vote for inclusion